I spent a long time talking to Emily on Skype yesterday, and I recorded quite a lot of our conversation. This morning I woke up thinking about our brief discussion of veganism (and slavery). So I looked through the video recording, and found the passage, and snipped it out, and uploaded it to YouTube in side-by-side portrait format.
At first I thought that it would probably take too long to edit and upload this fragment (less than 10 minutes in duration) in time for me to write something in my blog about it, because my video editing skills are pretty minimal still.
But in fact I managed it fairly easily, so here’s the clip, in which both Emily and I are fairly ostentatiously smoking and drinking (Pinot Grigio from a newly bought wine glass for me, a bottle of beer for Emily). It begins with me discovering her first ever comment on my blog, in which she tells me that she’s a vegan:
At one point, when I ask why it’s not OK for vegans to eat animals, but OK to eat plants, I ask what the difference is, and Emily says (3:42 mins) that animals have central nervous systems, and so can feel pain. Plants don’t, so can’t.
I’ve heard this argument before, and it was what I woke up thinking about.
What is a central nervous system? It’s a communication system between the cells in an animal body and its brain. So if I stub my left little toe, my toe sends a message to my brain which says “Ouch!”, and my brain responds by sending a message to my left leg to lift my left foot, and to my right leg to take all my weight, and to my vocal chords to yell “Ouch!!”
But aren’t the cells in my left toe sending this message because they’ve been squeezed or knocked or broken? The pain must start in several cells, and they send a message along nerves to my brain. The central nervous system is a message carrier, much like the internet. Messages – like “ouch!” – are sent from one place in the nervous system to another. The central nervous system does not itself initiate the “ouch” messages, but only communicates them from one place to another, just like the internet communicates messages from one person to another.
And so in what sense are animals only able to feel pain because they have central nervous systems which are able to communicate the pain felt in their toes to their brains? The pain is felt in the toes, and communicated to the brain. And the pain messages are caused by the toes being knocked, squeezed, heated, frozen, or whatever.
And so mustn’t the cells in potatoes also experience the same painful knocking, squeezing, heating and freezing. It’s simply that they have no way to communicate their pain elsewhere, because there isn’t a nervous system in plants to communicate it elsewhere, and there is nothing to communicate it to.
Or, to shift from discussing animals and their nervous systems to discussing human societies and their communication media, does the failure or inability of smokers to communicate the pain they feel about smoking bans mean that they’re not feeling any pain? No, it doesn’t. They feel a lot of pain. But they’re unable to communicate it. Being a smoker is like being a cell inside a potato. We can’t get our pain communicated to our social ‘brain’ – the government. So they think everything’s hunky dory, when it isn’t.
Or, to go back to potatoes, just because potatoes can’t communicate their pain, and can’t say “ouch!” out loud, doesn’t mean that the cells in a potato don’t feel pain any less than animal cells feel pain.
But we happily boil potatoes and carrots and apples alive. At least with our animals we make sure they’re dead (central nervous system no longer functioning) before we boil them.
So as I see it, cooking and eating plants is just as barbaric as cooking and eating animals. But we have no choice but to do this. Much as, in antiquity, if you wanted to live an idle life – a life of leisure – you had no choice but to get slaves to do your work for you. If we no longer have slaves, it’s because we get machines to do our work for us. But for that fact, we’d still have slaves.
Anyway, it’s interesting to be able to publish a fragment of a conversation I had yesterday, and discuss it further today.
I ended up drinking half a bottle of Pinot Grigio yesterday. And that may have been what was doing most of the talking.